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Recession-Proof Recipes: A Manageable Mole

The skinless, boneless chicken breast may be the monarch of the meat world these days, but thighs hold so much more flavor and are at least half the price of breasts.

Plus, legs and thighs are terrific stewed. Cook 'em long (braising or stewing is as good as roasting for making the most of cheaper cuts) season 'em well and serve 'em up over rice or noodles for some super-thrifty extender action.

I must admit, the disappointing part about stewing/braising is having to smell the wonderful stuff simmering away and knowing that it'll be hours before that pot of goodness is ready to eat.

The upside? Making your neighbors jealous. Oh, yes. They'll smell it. They'll ask about it. You might even receive sudden party invitations. The adorable Czech lass on the fourth floor recently wailed, "Are you the apartment that's cooking the curries? It's torture. You're making us all so hungry!"

Chicken thighs are terrific in curries. But today, we're going to Mexico. Just in time for next week's Cinco de Mayo, I'm in the mood for molé.

Pepper roasting on the stove
Avocado garnish: tasty, but not recession-proof

Now, I've cooked a lot of molés. With all due respect to the generations of dedicated mamas and abuelas who labored and sweated over the cookstove, those ladies who ground countless hours in their mortars, those solid individuals who gathered up 37 different ingredients and processed each separately...

I have the greatest respect for that kind of manual labor, but I have to say that the molés I've worked hardest and longest for did not taste markedly different from the ones I've thrown together and let simmer.

Or rather, there's a flavor difference, but it's not different enough. I don't know about you, but I've got a day job, and if I ever want to eat molé, it's going to be a supremely pared down version.

I initially wanted to make a Pasilla-Prune Molé, but the Key Food did not provide anything resembling a pasilla pepper. What did they have? Well, aside from the standard bell peppers, they had fresh jalapeños and I happened to find a jar of organic roasted piquillo peppers. (Woo hoo!)

I'd recommend you try to score at least three pepper varieties if you can manage to find 'em. Different peppers bring different personalities to the party, and since molé is essentially a flavor party, we want personality.

If you find dried peppers, you'll need to soak them for a few hours (or overnight) to soften them, so just plan that into your schedule.

Pepper roasting on the stove

If you're using bell peppers or jalapeños, you might want to char them. It's not essential, but it's extra flavor (yay, flavor!) and a nice char can be accomplished pretty easily if you have a gas grill. Just blacken them on all sides (use tongs to turn them) and toss them in a paper sack to steam for a half-hour or so. Then wipe off all the blackened skin (it should pull away easily) and use the peppers.

Those poor souls who only have electric ranges at hand can char their peppers in a skillet kept at high heat.

Those who are intimidated by even thinking about charring a pepper can probably find roasted peppers somewhere. But it's cheaper to roast 'em yourself.

If you're sensitive, remove the seeds and mind how many of the really spicy peppers you use. I found that a ratio of 8 oz piquillos to 4 oz roasted bell pepper and 4 oz roasted jalapeños worked well, (though I still wish I could've gotten my hands on some nice dried chilis.) Just remember, you can always pump up the heat before you serve it, but you can't really undo a too-spicy dish.
Three-Pepper Prune Molé (Serves 4, with extra sauce)
1 Tbsp vegetable oil
3 lb bone-in chicken thighs
1 large onion (halved, then sliced thin)
2 cups roasted peppers (3-4 roasted jalapeños, 1 roasted bell pepper, 8oz roasted piquillo peppers, for example)
14oz diced tomatoes (try to find fire-roasted tomatoes, if you can)
1 cup pitted prunes
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp ground cumin
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
2 Tbsp nut butter (almond butter or sesame butter work well)
1 tsp salt, or to taste

Nice options for serving
Steamed rice
Warmed corn tortillas
Wedges of lime
Cilantro leaves
Toasted sesame seeds or pepitas
Créme fraîche or sour cream

1. Heat large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat. Add the vegetable oil and coat the bottom of the pan. Brown the chicken thighs on all sides.
2. Hold the browned thighs on a plate while you brown the sliced onion in the same pan. Keep the slices moving to avoid uneven browning or sticking.
3. When the onions are soft and have some color, add the chicken back into the pan along with the peppers, tomatoes, prunes, cinnamon, cumin, chocolate and nut butter. Bring the mixture to a boil before turning the heat to low.
4. Let simmer, covered, for an hour, stirring occasionally to ensure the mixture doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan.
5. After an hour, the chicken should be falling off the bone. Carefully move the thighs from the pan to a clean plate and turn off the heat.
6. Taste the sauce, and add salt to taste. If it's not spicy enough at this point, add a pinch of cayenne.
7. Allow the sauce and chicken to cool a bit, and remove the bones and skin from the thighs.
8. You could serve the sauce chunky, but a smooth molé is more traditional. Cool the sauce to a safe handling temperature and pour it in a blender or food processor. Blend smooth before transferring back to the pan to re-warm for serving.
9. Serve the chicken with warm corn tortillas and steamed rice and the warm molé sauce.

Because molé is such a monochrome brown color, I usually like to garnish the dish with lime wedges, sesame seeds or pepitas, cilantro and/or créme fraîche or sour cream. They all add good flavor and visual contrast. The sauce is even better the next day and it freezes very well. In fact, molé sauce is fantastic with leftover turkey, so remember that next Thanksgiving.

Salud, amigos!

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5.01.2008

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